New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced, for the first and likely only time, his Democratic primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, onstage Wednesday night at Hofstra University, in a raucous, notably aggressive debate.
Cuomo kept his cool, although Nixon, a successful actor and education activist, lobbed a series of attacks on the two-term governor, calling into question his ethical judgment and devotion to progressive ideals.
Cuomo has proven that experience isn't enough “when you don't know how to govern,” Nixon said, kicking off 60 dizzying minutes of back-and-forth. Cuomo in turn chided Nixon, urging her to return to “real life,” and claiming to be the only one onstage who can stand up to President Donald Trump.
“We are the alternative state to Donald Trump,” Cuomo said. “We're not gonna let him bring his extreme Republican politics to New York.”
Cuomo also, in touting his opposition to the Republican president's immigration policies, twice referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials as a “bunch of thugs,” although he appeared to attempt a walk-back, by adding that Trump had “politicized” the agency.
Nixon maintained that Cuomo is a “corporate Democrat,” who has failed to push for single-payer health care, and has cozied up too closely to the Independent Democratic Conference — a group of eight Democratic state senators who caucus with Republicans — and thus doomed much progressive legislation.
“You've stood up to Donald Trump about as well as he does to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Nixon said, adding, “We need to oppose Trump not just with rhetoric, but with policy.”
And in what was undoubtedly the evening's most surreal moment, Nixon found herself repeatedly defending the fact that she was, indeed, “a person,” as Cuomo repeatedly attacked her for, apparently, owning and filing taxes for an “S corp.”
“When you file taxes as a corporation, you are a corporation,” Cuomo said, prompting Nixon's campaign to quickly issue a news release with the subject line, “Fact check: Cynthia is a human being” (see sidebar).
Both candidates held their own, with Nixon often interrupting Cuomo, and the incumbent governor asking her to stop. “Can you stop lying?” Nixon responded, twice.
Both also, however, appeared to lose their stride on particular questions — which may indicate potential weak points in their political armor.
For Nixon, when asked twice by moderators what specifically in her experience has prepared her to govern a state of 20 million people, with a $170 billion budget, she stumbled and paused, before reiterating her advocacy for public education, and her work in 2010 for Fight Back New York PAC, which sought to kick legislators who didn't support same-sex marriage out of office.
Cuomo slowed his delivery and pensively returned to his water glass several times when confronted over the conviction of his former aide Joe Percoco on bribery conspiracy charges, referring twice to the situation as “painful,” and insisting that “everybody agrees” he had nothing to do with his aide's crimes.
“Never underestimate the ability of smart people to do stupid things,” Cuomo said, quoting his father, the late three-term governor, Mario Cuomo.
Nixon, however, said that with Percoco's crimes going on “right under [Cuomo's] nose,” it was obviously either a case of “incompetence, or corruption.”
The invited audience of 150 at Hofstra's David S. Mack arena was largely quiet throughout the debate, at the request of CBS-NY moderators. Cuomo, however, successfully solicited some hearty applause from an apparently union-heavy portion of the audience when defending himself against charges of not being a friend to organized labor. Nixon, likewise, earned a few outbursts of laughter and boos at Cuomo's expense.
Cuomo holds a roughly 33-point lead over Nixon, with two weeks remaining before the state's Sept. 13 primary, according to the Real Clear Politics average, which is calculated between July Siena and Quinnipiac polls.
Nixon, however, has said in public statements that she believes her campaign is reeling in a “new electorate” not factored in to traditional polls.
And with the unlikely victory of Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over longtime 14th Congressional District Rep. Joe Crowley in June, and progressive Democrat Andrew Gillum's upset victory just Tuesday night over moderate frontrunner Gwen Graham in Florida's gubernatorial primary, Nixon maintains that “if progressives come together, we can win.”